Book review / When Pythagoras took off his skirt; Pythagoras' Trousers: God, physics and the gender wars by Margaret Wertheim, Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99

The culture of physics is infested with blokeish fantasies, says Jenny Turner
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The Old Testament we've known for ages. The new one, we've had for close on 2,000 years. But what about the Very New Testament, revealed in 1993? "And the Lord came down to see the accelerator which the children of men builded ... And the Lord sighed, and said, Go to it, let us go down and there give them the God particle, so that they may see how beautiful is the universe I have made ..." I particularly like that "go to it". Quite an improvement on old King James.

The God Particle is the name of a book by the US astrophysicist Leon Lederman. "Essentially a long argument for why America should fund the now defunct $10bn Superconductor Supercollider," says Margaret Wertheim, the book also contained "the unmistakable implication ... that particle physics is a direct path to the Deity". Hence the Very New Testament episodes, inserted in Celestine Prophecy fashion here and there in the text.

"It is not at all clear whether Lederman's theologising comes from a genuine religious faith, or scientific hubris," writes Wertheim, "or just a desire to sell books." But doesn't it look as if Lederman, whether in a fun or a cynical spirit, has just decided to try his hand at writing junk?

Margaret Wertheim is an Australian science journalist who works in the US. This book's argument, as she presents it in her introduction, is elegant and compelling. From Copernicus to Stephen Hawking, there has seldom been a famous physicist who did not pepper his formulae with references to "God". But scientists aren't supposed to be religious. Are all these physicists secret mystics at heart?

At the same time, physics is of all vocations (with the exception of the Catholic clergy) the one that has been most hostile to women. Ergo, the culture of physics is patriarchal and priestly. It excludes half the human race, on irrational grounds.

The story begins with Pythagoras of Samos (of the famous theorem), apparently one of the first Greeks to start wearing trousers instead of the more usual skirt. Pythagoras first started thinking about the universe in terms of fundamental mathematical relationships: odd and even, squares and triangles, structure and event. He also invested numerical relationships with emotional and cosmic significance; 216, for example, the "psychogonic cube" of 6 x 6 x 6. And he may have allowed the odd woman to join his inner circle, although they would have been at a bit of a disadvantage as, in his system, femininity = odd numbers = bad.

The story goes on with Copernicus and Kepler, Galileo and Bacon, Einstein and the quantum-mechanical cats. The basic structure of Wertheim's book is the traditional pageant-through-history: ancients, middle ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, modern times. Within that, we get pocket biographies of all the big male prime movers. These are followed by shorter, feminist- apologetic sketches of the women, from Hypatia on, who might have been prime movers, too, if the men had let them. The argument quickly loses its dynamism and so, very noticeably, does the prose. The sophisticated "cultural history" of physics we were promised never really turns up.

Most disappointingly, Wertheim's book completely loses sight of its most interesting goal: a natural history, as it were, of how physics through the ages has been motivated by fantasies about universal mastery and God. Instead, it attempts to make complex points about how sexism, religiosity and social irresponsibility feed into one another (as they obviously do on some level), but in an unhelpfully simplistic way.

For example, there is something deeply blokeish about Lederman with his God Particle fantasies and his ginormous Supercollider. But how could physics possibly not be infested with blokeish will-to-power fantasies, given the world we live in and the past it has had? That's just our basic reality, as all-pervasive as the air we breathe. No amount of weak-feminist if-only-ing is going to change that.

At one point, Wertheim cites admiringly the work of a woman biologist who won her Nobel prize, apparently, for, uh, "listening" to her plants. If only they'd had a women's room at Los Alamos. They could have sat around "listening" to their little lumps of plutonium, and spared humanity the trouble of the atom bomb ... That's a cheap stroke, of course. I know that Wertheim doesn't intend such a fatuous comparison. But the trouble with this sort of history is that's exactly what happens when such a work falls into the wrong hands.

The woman biologist deserves better, as do women in general. And so, pre-eminently, does the history of physics, both in its patriarchal, cultish aspects and in the nobility of its endeavours ever since that founding moment when, for the first time in western history, Pythagoras took off his skirt.